MUSIC: Musical Hometown by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Musical Hometown by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I will never forget when I returned for a weekend to my hometown forty-seven years after my graduation from high school.  The buildings and streets were almost exactly as they were when I left, but no one whom I had known while growing up was there any longer.  Yet the place was alive with memories for me.  My wife and I walked all around the village, and nearly every street corner and building, nearly every view of the surrounding hills and the lake awakened some story from me.  I gave her a guided tour based on personal memories.  “They used to flood that sunken, empty lot with water to make an outdoor ice rink in the winter.”  “I had a friend who lived there at the mouth of the river.  We would get in his rowboat and drift downstream to the dam.”  “It was upstairs in that colonial house attached to the church that I was baptized as a teenager.  I can still picture my history teacher, who was an elder on the church board, holding the water-filled silver basin.”  “There is a marker down there on the lake shore to commemorate a classmate who died in an automobile accident the day before his graduation.”

On an on I went with the stories, and with the telling of every memory it seemed as though the town were repopulated with the people I had known.  When I drove away, I realized that my hometown was not just a place on the map; it was a territory in my soul, a region of memory and association, of persons and events that remained as vivid to me as they were when I first encountered them.

It is revealing to expand the image of a hometown in the soul to include the way various pieces of music are so deeply rooted in our hearts and minds such that upon playing, singing, or hearing them we find ourselves spontaneously present at a particular occasion or place.  I think of the record my father played again and again as I sat in his lap as a small child, the first full sonata I mastered on my instrument, the hymns my mother sang and played nearly every night after supper, or the aria sung at my wedding.  I could go on and on, but they would all be my memories, not yours.  You can fill in the the pieces of the musical hometown in your own soul.  What are the memories and stories that come alive in you when you play or sing or listen to particular pieces of music?  What does the musical hometown of your soul sound like?

These musical hometowns are precious to us, but just like the hometowns of our childhood, they offer both benefits and liabilities.  The chief benefit is their familiarity, the ease we feel in knowing the music, its nuances and beauties, and the pleasure of its rich associations.  The chief liability is that, like all hometowns, they are often limited and parochial.  Just as we discover that the rest of the world is not like the place where we grew up, so too maturing musically means moving beyond the limits of our hometowns to learn melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and colorings that are nothing like what we grew up with.

While I left for college, I recall seeing the town, the lake, and the hills sinking from sight.  I felt sad for a world that I was leaving behind.  But when I visited my hometown all those years later, I found myself filled with thanksgiving both for my hometown and for all the people and events in my adult life that have expanded my vision far beyond what my place of upbringing could ever have supplied.  It is the same thanksgiving I feel for the great musicians in my life who have played the music of the hometown in my soul and who have also introduced me to sonic worlds I never imagined or knew existed.

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